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Is Democracy a Universal Human Desire?

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I am presently reading Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), by Pulitzer Prize winning author Thomas E. Ricks. Any one who knows of a critical review of this best-selling book would help me by suggesting where I can find said review. The book is, to my mind at this moment, a powerful and fair-minded critique of much that has gone wrong in our Iraq military adventure. According to Ricks blame for our multiple failures, if we are to assign primary blame, lies with the civilian leadership at the Pentagon. This begins with Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has called most of the shots in this war, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the neo-con genius who has been a principal architect of the philosophical thinking that led us into this conflict.

The question I would like to pose about the philosophy that is behind this war is quite simple. President Bush and his advisors have consistently argued (since 9/11) that democracy is an inherent desire that lies in the heart of people. By this argument the Iraqi people deeply desire to live under some form of democracy and we are there to build a nation that allows this desire to be expressed politically. This argument is based upon several intellectual arguments that have been presented by influential thinkers in and out of this administration.

My question: Is the desire for political freedom a value or an instinct? Bush and his advisors argue that it is an instinct. (And on this basis they are seeking to build a democratic nation in Iraq that will become a beacon of hope to other peoples in the Middle East.) I think the desire for political freedom is clearly a value. And it is a value that took us centuries to develop. We value democracy in the West only because of the influences that have come into our way of thinking through both Christian social thought and Enlightenment insights, neither of which is an influence on Iraq at all. Even in the West it took us a long time to come to our present understanding and commitment to democratic values; e.g., we fought a Civil War to define these values less than a hundred and fifty years ago. I do not see a biblical or philosophical basis for arguing that a desire for democracy is instinctive to the human heart. If this is true then how do you explain the people of God under the Old Covenant? And how do you explain the ancients who settled, except for a limited experiment in Greece, for something less? And what about the Middle Ages? There just seems to be little evidence for this argument thus I think it should be challenged in the court of public debate. This challenge does not constitute a capitulation to the far left. Many social and political conservatives have made it before me.

Let it be noted that I personally believe in democracy. I believe it is the best system of government that we know for a people like ourselves, a people with our values and influences. What I question here is the assumption that it is the right, or best, system for all other people. I also seriously question how a Muslim country can truly understand and embrace democracy. Certainly the democracy that we have already introduced is extremely limited given the religious expressions in the Iraqi Constitution.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."

John Armstrong John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."


  • See a posting on Natan Sharansky’s discussing nearly but not exactly the same point: “Sharansky’s Town-Square Test: Identifying Genuine, Peace-Promoting Democracy”

  • Solomon

    I hardly believe that the motive for the Bush adminstration is as stated,’…democracy is an inherent desire that lies in the heart of people. By this argument the Iraqi people deeply desire to live under some form of democracy and we are there to build a nation that allows this desire to be expressed politically.’If that had been the case, his adminstration would have intervened in a number of war torn African countries. The belief that democracy would be a universal desire is rather an afterward-thought to justify the war. Still the cry from Darfur could not get enough attention so as to even realize sanction against the Khartoum goverment. Would democracy then be favoring one people over another?

    Solomon Dejene
    Junior Researcher
    Nijmegen Institute for Mission Studies
    The Netherlands

  • Steve Daskal

    Reviews of Ricks’ Book….
    Iraq_Is OIF Really a ‘Fiasco’ (Ricks vs De Atkine vs SteveD)
    ** This is an interesting discussion because both sides score points and lose points, from my perspective. A good argument can be made for both De Atkine’s view (shared by most neo-Wilsonians inside and outside the Bush Administration) and Ricks’ (which is shared by plenty of other military and foreign affairs analysts).
    ** The crux of the issue is whether the neo-Wilsonian plan for very rapid, low-impact transformation of Iraq into a secular, pluralistic, centralized democracy was viable. If the plan was viable — if there really was a viable Iraqi nation that was committed to secularism and wanted to embrace democracy — then Tex (and the Bush Administration) would be right and Tom (et al) would be wrong. To transform Iraq into a secular democracy, the Ba’ath Party and the Iraqi military (especially the Republican Guard with their hand-picked officer corps loyal to the Ba’ath Party, if not to the Husseins, and the Tikriti clan) had to be completely eliminated and its officers/officials purged from all positions of authority/influence in government, security services, education, and media/cultural affairs. Of course, the constitution would have had to prohibited all religious and ethnic parties and all political appeals to religion/ethnicity, etc., etc.
    ** However, if the neo-Wilsonian plan of turning Iraq into the secular democratic keystone of a new Middle East was unrealistic — if it were based on unfounded or obsolete assumptions about the region, about the attractiveness of secularism and/or pluralism and/or democracy — then Tex would be wrong, and Tom would be right. This is the fundamental disagreement.
    ** De Atkine’s final lines make this clear — he is so firmly committed to mass democracy that even if mass democracy turns Iraq from a Sunni minority-dominated secular dictatorship into a Shi’a-majority dominated Islamist-populist state, he apparently thinks that is okay. I’m no fan of the Sunni Arabs in Iraq — they overplayed their cards badly, exploited and brutalized everyone, and now are deservedly paying dearly for it. However, I’m also very much aware that while the Shi’a, like the Kurds, would have embraced secularism, pluralism, and democracy in 1991 if we’d had the sense to bring it to them at the close of Desert Storm (instead of settling for a fundamentally unstable return to the status quo ante bellum) by 2003 twelve years of radically divergent history had turned the Shi’ites of necessity to dependence upon the Khomein’ists of Iran, who had become their only source of cohesive and seemingly dependable leadership and support.
    ** De Atkine’s view was probably correct back in Bush Sr’s day. But sadly, Ricks’ is the correct view today. As you probably already could guess, I tend to side with Ricks on this one, and not with De Atkine, although I don’t agree completely with Ricks nor completely disagree with De Atkine.

    An anti-war book even supporters should read
    By Jack Kelly
    Jewish World Review
    Sept. 12, 2006 / 19 Elul, 5766

    First, make lots of Iraqis really, really mad at us. Then convince them we can be intimidated. That’s in effect what the U.S. did in the disastrous first year of its occupation of Iraq, argues Thomas Ricks, senior Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post, in his new book.

    The book is entitled “Fiasco,” which gives you an idea of what Mr. Ricks thinks of what he terms “the American military adventure in Iraq.” It’s a must read, despite serious flaws.

    “Fiasco” doesn’t do as good a job of describing the planning for the Iraq war and the march on Baghdad as did Michael Gordon, defense correspondent for the New York Times, and Bernard Trainor, a retired Marine general, did in their book, “Cobra II,” published earlier this year. But Cobra II ends with the fall of Saddam’s regime.

    The heart of Mr. Ricks’ book is the guerrilla war which began afterwards.

    As a supporter of the war and a defender of the Bush administration, I was put off by the title. But Mr. Ricks marshals an impressive amount of evidence to justify it.

    As Mr. Gordon and Mr. Trainor noted in greater detail, the Bush administration began the war with rosy illusions, lousy intelligence, and virtually no idea of what to do once Baghdad fell. Blame for the failure to plan is shared roughly equally by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Army, which suffered as massive an institutional failure in Iraq as did the CIA and FBI before 9/11.

    Mr. Ricks argues (as did Mr. Gordon and Mr. Trainor) that Coalition Provisional Authority chief Paul Bremer made two huge blunders early in his tenure when he ordered a massive de-Baathification program which stripped Iraq’s government ministries of most of its competent technicians, and formally abolished the Iraqi army.

    By stripping tens of thousands of Iraqis of their livelihood, Mr. Bremer created a huge pool of recruits and sympathizers for the insurgency, while making it harder for the Iraqi government to provide basic services to its people, Mr. Ricks argues. The Army compounded Mr. Bremer’s blunders by its rough treatment of civilians in Sunni Muslim areas. Thousands were arrested on flimsy pretexts in sweep operations and sent off to Abu Ghraib prison, which swiftly became overcrowded. Many who did not support the insurgency beforehand were inclined to do so afterward.

    After the CPA and the Army made most of Iraq’s Sunnis mad at us, our “leadership,” by wimping out in the first battle of Fallujah, gave the insurgents reason to think they could win.

    The Marines were ordered to take Fallujah after the grisly murders of defense contractors there in March, 2004. But as they were on the verge of taking the city, political pressures forced the Marines to halt their assault. The insurgents were handed a victory. Their prestige and their morale soared. Thirty nine Marines and soldiers died for nothing.

    The list of lesser mistakes chronicled by Mr. Ricks is, regrettably, far too long to mention in the space available in this column. Suffice it to say that in our first year in Iraq, the U.S. violated every sound principle of counter-insurgency warfare. Fortunately, the U.S. military tends, in wartime, to learn fairly quickly from its mistakes. Virtually everything that was done so disastrously wrong in the first year of the occupation is now being done right, or nearly so. Mr. Ricks thinks it’s too little, too late. But that remains to be seen.

    “Fiasco” has two serious weaknesses. Mr. Ricks advances two theses: that the Iraq war was unwinnable from the get go, and thus ought not to have been undertaken in the first place.

    But Mr. Ricks also implies the insurgency could have been put down fairly quickly (or might not have gotten going at all) were it not for the blunders of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, CPA administrator Paul Bremer, and various Army generals.

    He seems not to recognize there is tension between the two. If the blunders cost us a relatively easy victory (and Mr. Ricks makes a persuasive case that they did), then it’s the blunders — and not the decision to go to war — that’s the core of the problem.

    The more serious weakness of “Fiasco” is Mr. Ricks discusses the enemy only to illume U.S. mistakes, real and imagined. He sheds no light on the relative importance of al Qaeda, the ex-Baathists, and Iran in this conflict, and how they have interacted. He says nothing of the importance al Qaeda has placed on Iraq, or of the losses it has suffered there. It’s like reading a history of World War II that mentions the Germans, the Japanese and the Italians only in passing.

    So read “Fiasco” with a jaundiced eye. But read it. The book’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses.

    — JWR contributor Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. © 2006, Jack Kelly

    On Tuesday, Sep 12, 2006, at 20:24 US/Eastern, Paul B wrote:

    Note:  This comment is from Col. (ret) “Tex” De Atkine who is an expert on Islam and the Arabs, having served in the Middle East for decades, taught Army Special Forces at Ft. Bragg before they depart for the Middle East, and having visited Iraq many times since 2003 to perform surveys for the Special Forces.  Paul

    This is what I wrote the editor and reviewer
        Good review I think and I agree with a lot of it.
        I disagree with the reviewer and the book completely on two major points. The reviewer draws the same conclusion that I constantly read and hear…that the de bathification program and disbanding the army was a major error. It is never challenged and has entered the realm of gospel. But it is wrong. I worked with the Shi’a and some Kurds when in Iraq and talk to them now…and they have a very different view of those two points. Between those two communities they make up 80% of the population and my impression it is that very few people understand the Shi’a viewpoint or that of the Shi’a community. The reporting on Iraq has always been sunni-centric.
        In the book Ricks makes some great points about the US military leadership which I saw when I was there as being inept……but Ricks book just repeats some of the same old canards which are wrong,  The problem was not de-bathtfication,,,the problem was it was not done throughly enough…and there is no question that disbanding the army was the right thing to do, What none of these critics ever think about is what would have happened had we not disbanded the army…exactly what would we have accomplished.? We would have gotten rid of Saddam who wasn’t all that popular even with his own Sunnis and restored the real evil….. the sunni-centric Ba’ath party to govern Iraq as they always have. What would the Shi’a and Kurds done?
        We need some new thinking on Iraq ..not just the same  cliches endlessly repeated by Washington insiders who read each others books. I would be very happy to expand on this because we need to correct much of what passes for wisdom on the Iraqi “Fiasco”.
         Invading Iraq was the right thing to do despite all the mistakes we have made and I remain confident that Iraq will be a unified and better country in the decade to come,
    NB “Tex”ꃞ Atkine
    Col USA retired